The Memory Project

by Anisha Joshi

The word ‘memory’ can refer to many different things. It can mean an individual’s remembrance of a past experience, or the collective recollection of an event that impacts a larger group of people. In the Memory Project, documentarian Wu Wenguang explores both these avenues by documenting and protecting the memories of people who lived through the cultural revolution and who live in China with the legacy of this past. Duke Kunshan University was privileged to have him bring the project to the campus through the Water-Town Film Festival with two of his team members, Hu Sanshou and Zhang Mengqi from Beijing.

During the festival students and guests had the opportunity to watch some of the movies from the collection. While in his documentaries he examines the impacts of the Cultural Revolution on the people of China, he has also empowered young people from across the country by giving them a way to tell stories from their families and villages, and two such films were brought to DKU during the festival. In Self Portrait: Sphinx in 47 km, Mengqi documents the dreams of a young girl who wants to paint and the pains of a mother who lost her son to the death penalty. In Touxiuzi, Sanshou gives an image of what it is like to live in his village by documenting the stories of his own family. In a village plagued by the problem of people being unable to communicate with each other, his family seems to be followed by the same problem. The films realistically capture many details of the ups and downs of life in rural China. Although they may seem drawn out a bit too long, once you keep watching you realize that these little stories and experiences are what build up lives around these villages and China, and present realities that many may not be all that familiar with.

Wu Wenguang also hosted a session in the Arts and Humanities- Interpretation of Images and Sound class, with a gut-wrenching performance by him and two members of the project. Consisting of a narration by Wu, a video with subtitles and a theatrical performance by Zhang Mengqi and Hu Sanshou, the display depicted hunger during the Great Famine. A video component included interviews with survivors of the famine, who recollected how the devastations wreaked upon their settlements had led to days without any semblance of food, deaths of family members and rents to the social fabric of the community.

We were also able to discuss Wu’s work with Investigating My Father. In this thought-provoking documentary, Wu pieces together stories he never heard from his father, who, as the Cultural Revolution progressed, had been compelled to take on a new identity to hide from his past as a Kuomintang pilot. Wu investigates records, interviews his mother and goes back to the village his father came from, discovering along the way stories he’d never known while his father had been alive. The documentary chronicles an important aspect of the Cultural Revolution, for most likely Wu’s father was one among thousands who had been led to erase their identities to make space for newer, safer ones.

The project highlights how historical events do not occur in isolation, exclusively affecting the names and personalities that are recorded, and they do not occur in mere statistics. Memories of the way an event was experienced are an integral aspect of the collective perception of an event. They are important in the sense that they take us into the lives of people who suffered as the events unfolded, which oftentimes are much more reflective of the impact of these events than just numbers. They take us into the lives of the common people and the people hit hardest by the events that devastate millions of people.

The project doesn’t run short of meaning, for it is not only a way of giving life to history, but it is also a way of keeping alive stories of families even as they unfold today, that would have been lost otherwise. Wu Wenyang’s work is important because it chronicles the memories and the voices of those who would have been forgotten if not for his initiative. It is imperative that we do not lose the voices of the people who have lived through these events, for on the day to day they were the ones whose lives changed so drastically through these revolutions. These are the stories that made China and continue to make much of it today, and to forget them would be an injustice to the legacy of these realities.